Partridge being polite?

In the dedication to the buyer of the first edition of his Concise Usage & Abusage which I reported on the other day, Partridge complements Conrad van Hoewijk on his command of English: this Dutchman really doesn’t need to buy a usage guide, is what the text implies, his command of English is that good:

Conrad van Hoewijk/ who doesn’t yet need it, yet/ buys a copy – ‘the acid test’ – /gratefully acknowledged by /Eric Partridge/9/ix/954

A non-native speaker myself too, I frequently get similar comments from people I meet in Britain, often phrased in the form of the astonishment at how good the English of Dutch speakers tends to be, as well as that of speakers from Scandinavian countries. Why is that? they all want to know.

A similar comment occurs in Asta’s Book, a novel by Barbara Vine, published in 1993:

Attached to this with a paper-clip was a letter and the publishers’ usual compliments slip. The letter was in English, the very correct English of the well-educated Dane (p. 412).

Barbara Vine’s comment isn’t intended as a compliment to the letter-writer, as the protagonist is not meeting her face-to-face. So it confirms to me that such comments, well-intentioned as they are, I’m sure, may not be complimentary at all. In the University of Leiden, where I took my degree in English, we try to take our students to what is referred to as “near-native-speaker level”: this, as I am only too aware myself, is usually quite impossible.

So what do people mean when they say that your English is so good? Do we, in using the sort of “very correct English” that we’ve been taught to use, in fact not speak good English at all? Is our English rather more idiomatic perhaps than the real thing? Certainly that is what it feels like much of the time. Perhaps Partridge was right, and non-native speakers do not need usage guides but learner’s guides, targeted at our specific native speaker problems when speaking English (or any other language). And is there indeed an “acid test” for this? I’d really like to know.

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